Alcohol denied shark tourney
In a move intended to push the 22nd annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark tournament out of town, the board of selectmen Tuesday voted to set a policy denying a liquor license to any shark tournaments. The organizer of the long-time fishing contest threatened legal action.
"Does that sound like a discrimination lawsuit?" said Steve James, president of the Boston Big Game Fishing Club, in a phone conversation with The Times Wednesday morning. "It sounds like they're going to discriminate not only against fisherman, but against a certain kind of fisherman. You've got to ask yourself, is there nothing else going on in the town of Oak Bluffs that is more critical? It's almost a joke."
Mr. James is the organizer of the monster shark tournament and several other fishing tournaments that attract hundreds of participants.
When asked directly if he intended to file a lawsuit, Mr. James replied, "That's probably where we need to go; let's leave it at that. It's a beautiful thing to say, that's all that needs to be said. It's discrimination based on a user group, based on what kind of fish you catch. It doesn't make any sense to me. I think that's discrimination."
Selectmen have granted the liquor license to the shark tournament for their captain's meeting and awards ceremony in the past, and routinely grant the same kind of license to other groups. At their Tuesday meeting, they voted unanimously to grant a one-day beer and wine permit to the town's fire department for their annual picnic at another town-owned facility.
The regional tournament turned into a big-time fishing event when it became the subject of a four-part ESPN television special in 2004. In 2005, the 19th annual Oak Bluffs Monster Shark Tournament attracted a record number of 245 participating boats.
That same year the catch of a 1,191-pound tiger shark attracted national media attention and the attention of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), which mounted a determined effort to oppose the tournament. HSUS argued that the shark tournament undermines the Island's values and encourages overfishing a species facing ecological disaster.
The Humane Society waged an intensive public relations campaign calling on Oak Bluffs town officials to withdraw any support for the contest. Selectmen were divided over the question and turned to voters for guidance.
At their 2007 annual town meeting, 458 Oak Bluffs voters said yes and 386 said no to a non-binding ballot question that asked if the town should continue to allow the use of town property for events related to shark tournaments.
Chairman Ron DiOrio Tuesday stressed there was no request before the board from Mr. James for a liquor license, but he thought taking action early was important. "What has happened in the past, is we get a request very late in the process," he said. "I felt stampeded into a decision because it was going to hurt (businesses). Rooms had been booked, reservations had been made."
Selectmen Kerry Scott and Roger Wey joined Mr. DiOrio in voting to set the policy. "Everyone knows exactly how I feel about the shark tournament," said Ms. Scott. "I feel Steve James has been treated very, very well by the town of Oak Bluffs. We have made it possible for Steve James to make one heck of a good living, and we don't get a whole lot back from that."
Selectmen Duncan Ross and Greg Coogan voted against the measure. Both cited the 2007 town vote as part of the reason they did not support the policy.
"I don't fish," said Mr. Coogan. "Don't want any fish on my boat, don't care about fishing at all. We've spent countless hours on this subject, to the point of being ridiculous. I don't care about the shark tournament, but I think there are a lot of people who do. The town has voted for it."
The shark tournament last year attracted hundreds of participating boats and thousands of spectators who crowded into town to view the weigh-in of the sharks that were landed. Several local business owners attended the selectmen's meeting to speak in support of an event they said benefits the town's economy.
"I would suggest before you vote, to see whether it's right to put a specific 'no' on shark tournaments," said Stuart Robinson, owner of Smoke 'N Bones restaurant. "You might be opening yourself to trouble. I catered it for the last five years. Whether you say yes or no, it will not affect me, except, that we hire 75-100 people every year to help serve. That's a lot of people that spend money in this economy. We need this extra income. The majority of businesses do very well that weekend. The money we make helps the community. I think you will be hurting us in the long run."
Mr. James sent a letter to the parks commission last week requesting the use of Washington Park, the public space between the harbor and Chapman Avenue. He wants to erect a banquet tent with a capacity of 900 people for tournament events on July 17 through the July 19. He also asked to use Sunset Park, across the street from the harbor, for parking. In past years, the banquet tent was erected on Sunset Park.
Richard Combra Jr., chairman of the parks commission, said the commission has not yet discussed the request, but planned to begin debate at the commission's meeting on Monday. He pledged that no vote would be taken on Monday, and none would be taken before a full public hearing on the issue.
Yesterday, Mr. James called the actions of town officials harassment, and said such actions harden his resolve. "I will not abandon all of the businesses in Oak Bluffs, and I will not give the Humane Society this idea that they are driving my business," said Mr. James. "I'm not going anywhere. There isn't anyone in the town of Oak Bluffs that controls the federal waterways, and that's where this tournament takes place. Be careful what you ask for from me. I may give you three tournaments, back to back."
Mr. James said if he cannot get a liquor license from the board of selectmen, he would be more inclined to move the tournament events to a private facility, as he has in the past.